9 Unexpected Skills of a Field Biologist

by Danai Papageorgiou

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Vulturine guineafowl, adult with chick. Photo by Danai Papageorgiou.

A year and a half ago I started my research as a Ph.D. candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and at the University of Konstanz, in Germany. I have always been interested in the coordination of collective action, i.e. how animal groups make decisions about where to go and what to do each day. To study this, my advisor gave me the amazing opportunity to study vulturine guineafowl (Acryllium vulturinum) in the Kenyan savannah, a dream field site for many wildlife biologists. Having done my bachelor’s and master’s studies at the University of Patras in Greece—a relatively small and underfunded university with hard-working faculty members—I expected that during my Ph.D. work abroad, I would experience top-level research, publish a couple of good papers, and learn useful computational skills. Little did I know how much more than that I would learn and experience! My fieldwork at Mpala Research Center in Kenya has helped me pick up skills and grow as an individual in ways I hadn’t anticipated before:

  1. Defying gender roles to become a mechanic
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Messing with cables to set up a remote triggering mechanism for a vulturine guineafowl trap. Photo by Dimitris Papadakis

In Greece, where I was born and raised (and possibly all over the world), many women are taught that using a hammer, moving heavy things, building and constructing, handling metal bars, chicken wire, cables or electronic mechanisms are a man’s job. However, in the field, we had to come up with imaginative ideas about how to construct traps to catch an entire group of guineafowl while prioritizing their safety — and many of those skills were required. Over these past months, I have become an amateur mechanic. Not surprisingly, not only do the women team members manage to do all of the abovementioned tasks well, but we also come up with clever ways to minimize labor and increase efficiency.

  1. Working as a team and finding my role in the group

Danai, what do you want me to do today?” That is a question I really don’t enjoy being asked when I am in the field. Ph.D. students may be regarded as supervisors or mentors to field assistants, interns and younger students, but I think that still each group member in a scientific team can become the expert on the tasks they have undertaken; creative thinking, by all members, can be much more fruitful than just following the direction of someone “higher up in the hierarchy”.  It requires some skills to help the people working with me to set up a rough schedule that still allows for innovation and creativity. I try to pre-empt the former question by asking “Hey, what do you think you should do today to achieve your goals?

  1. Driving under harsh and… “reversed” conditions

Coming from a European city with relatively smooth roads, driving on the left side of the road on the Kenyan savanna’s washboard, dirt roads can be a real challenge. Maintaining a slow speed is frustrating, but really helps to keep an old car with aged suspension in good condition. I have learned to change tires and other basics about car mechanics to make sure I can fix the car as fast as possible and get back out to the field.

  1. Finding moments to rest even if “a day off” is a distant concept
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Taking in the view of the savanna during time “off”. Photo by Dimitris Papadakis

The amount of fieldwork that needs to be done in Kenya is massive and I am restricted to spending no more than 25% of my Ph.D. time away from Germany. Some field biologists, spending months isolated with a small group of people in places like Antarctica, mention tiring of hearing their own thoughts. Even though I am privileged enough to work at a field site with relatively good WiFi and plenty of different people around, it can still be tricky to observe a group of birds for many consecutive hours. Eventually my mind starts coming up with urgent needs that require me to be elsewhere (my stomach feels sick, I get hungry, I need to send an important email…).

To avoid this, I take advantage of every small chance to rest, taking naps or reading books. Over time I have also become much better at not wasting time on hopeless web surfing or watching videos and movies that I don’t really enjoy. In general, I avoid procrastination and focus on doing things that I truly love. Despite my respect for labor rights, within eight months of fieldwork I have only taken 1 or 2 full days off! To balance that, I try to change my daily routine when I start feeling that my performance decreases and that I need a break. I may, for example, sleep longer one morning and go a few days without doing office work. These changes in my daily schedule in combination with exercise, wildlife watching, and a bit of socializing keep me well rested. And, of course, when I return to Europe I get to take off some of the days I missed when I was in the field!

  1. Keep reading and coding despite intensive fieldwork

Being a Ph.D. student that spends many months in the field may slow down the process of developing your academic, non-field-related skills. Being part of journal clubs and attending seminars and presentations is what I miss out on most while in the field, so I always try to read papers and stay up to date as best I can from the field. Another good habit is to set myself small coding exercises and always try to solve all my data-checking problems using R.

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Following movements of individuals in a flock using video recording. Photo by Charlotte Christensen.
  1. Maintaining long distance relationships

Friends, family, and my partner are the people I miss when I am in the field. What I find quite challenging is to always have something to share with them when chatting. “Oh, I saw a group of 25 hyaenas today and I was really close to them”, “That’s awesome! But be careful, were you inside the car?” This conversation might be exciting for the first few weeks of fieldwork, but after a while we can lose interest in these distant narrations. To cope with that and prevent repetition, I try to reach out to people when they or I have something new to share.

  1. Dealing with bureaucracy worldwide

Dealing with export and import permits of biological samples has made me become thoroughly familiar with the logistics of two very differently organized countries: Germany and Kenya. It may sound like a waste of time, but once you make a breakthrough with permit bureaucracy, all the other life logistics of moving to another country—visa, registrations, finding accommodation, dealing with landlords, customs etc.—are a cakewalk! I’ve learned that all these issues can be fixed and there is no reason for neophobia when dealing with bureaucracy.

  1. Thinking like a guineafowl and following their schedule

When working closely with wild animals it is necessary to plan your schedule and your activities according to theirs. I always wake up before them (5:20) and go to bed after them (21:30). Trapping and ringing vulturine guineafowl is a process we have developed based on the birds’ peculiarities and needs — we have to constantly think like them. For example, we have to be sure we don’t leave ropes and poles lying around since they look like snakes and make them avoid the area (the opposite of what we want!). Habituating a group so that we can follow them on foot takes ages, but if a new member joins a habituated group, we have to change all our plans and data collection routines in order to give time and space for the newcomer to adapt.

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Vulturine gunieafowl fitted with color bands for individual identification. Photo by Danai Papageorgiou.

 

  1. Presenting myself and my research to the public

Explaining to the public why I spend so many months far away from home studying how vulturine guineafowl make collective decisions and form their societies has been a really fun challenge. Recently I filmed a video for National Geographic where I introduce my work, and I am now waiting to see what miracles their editing team can work on the footage! Before that I was extremely camera shy and hated seeing myself on a screen, but speaking to people with all kinds of backgrounds about my research has been very rewarding, and it’s something I get to do a lot while working at a research centre like Mpala, with researchers and school groups cycling through.

I am still learning, and with another two years to go, I hope that by the end of my Ph.D. I will be able to claim the title of a multi-tasking-superwoman!


Danai Papageorgiou is a behavioural ecologist, fascinated by the animal world. After having studied birds in Greek parks, migrating Woodchat Shrikes on the remote island of Antikythira, captive nectar feeding bats in Berlin, breeding Red-backed Shrikes in Denmark, and wild mallards in Germany, she is now working on her PhD studying the highly gregarious vulturine guineafowl on the Kenyan savanna. She is based at Department of Collective Behaviour at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, and she is fascinated by decision-making in animal groups. She is trying to understand the role of dominance hierarchies in democratic animal societies. Follow her on twitter @DanPapageorgiou

 

 

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